Parents: School District Should Spend on Classrooms

Published March 1, 2007

Some parents are livid over Superintendent Connie Neale’s proposed administrative pay raises in Elgin [Illinois] School District U46, saying the money should be spent on their children, not the overhead.

“Excuse me, how can you afford to cut programs and give the superintendent and her staff six-figure salaries? It irks me, I just don’t understand it,” said Maryjane Comstock, the parent of a deaf child in U46. She said she was floored by the district’s decision earlier this month to end its contract with the Northwestern Illinois Association, which provides U46’s hearing-impaired services.

“How can they be so plastic and mean, totally the opposite of what they’re saying? They don’t empathize with us,” Comstock continued. “Our kids are left in the dark and don’t know what’s going on. And while (students) are blowing in the wind, we’re raising their salaries? It’s true they don’t give a hoot about these kids. They only care about money.”

Resigning Member

Comstock’s reaction comes after the January 20 resignation of U46 school board member Daniel Rich, who stepped down citing what he considered outrageous salary demands by Neale and a generous response by board members. [On January 26 another area newspaper, the Daily Herald, reported the U46 board also agreed to pay Neale more than $1 million in benefits after she retires, extending several benefits, such as complete medical, dental, and long-term care insurance, for the rest of her life. Her current contract also pays for them, but only until her retirement. The board informally approved the new contract on January 20; final approval was pending at press time. ed.]

Rich provided The Courier News with a letter Neale gave school board members at a closed meeting on January 20. The letter sought a tax-free 10 percent to 20 percent bonus and a $30,000 to $50,000 raise on top of her $242,000 salary.

The letter cited the elimination of the district’s huge deficit and that “all elementary schools [made] adequate yearly progress goals [under the federal No Child Left Behind Act] in the fall of 2006.”

Rich said the board on January 20 “reluctantly agreed” to give Neale “a $20,000 salary realignment and a 10 percent tax-free bonus.” This means Neale will be making “around $400,000 next year,” Rich said.

The $400,000 salary estimate includes not only Neale’s base salary, but also items such as a cell phone, a car, disability insurance, medical benefits, a contribution to the teachers retirement fund, and other benefits, according to the documents handed over by Rich.

‘Not Enough’

But some U46 parents say spend the money on the teachers.

“Not enough credit is given to the teachers who are doing the true work in the classroom. The real challenge is getting these schools off of academic warning lists. Give them [teachers] the bonuses,” said Kristine Porter, a parent whose three children attend Nature Ridge Elementary School in Bartlett. “We’re giving these teachers 30 little kids and they have to work second jobs and they can’t even live in the district they teach in because they can’t afford it.”

Salary and benefits for a U46 teacher range from $35,473 for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree to $74,889 for a teacher with a master’s degree who has been employed by the district for 30 years, according to district data.

Porter says administrators need raises, too, but the money ultimately should be spent in the classroom.

“Not that the superintendent doesn’t deserve a raise when her contract is up, but let’s look at it then and then decide if we can afford it,” Porter continued. “We’re always talking about fiscal responsibility, but money should not first be applied to administrators’ salaries. It should start in our classrooms with our kids and our teachers.”

Members of Neale’s cabinet make anywhere from $130,386 to $175,925, which includes their pensions, according to a board document provided by Rich.

Smaller Classes

U46 is proposing to spend more money on lowering class sizes.

Neale says there’s only a “finite pot of money” for the district to spend on staffing levels.

Even so, John Prince, the district’s chief financial officer, says the district probably will dish out the money to cut class sizes.

“I believe we will be good enough to make these moves (lowering class sizes) forward and the district will be able to absorb them” financially, said Prince.

Thirteen of the district’s 40 elementary schools are dealing with large classroom sizes ranging from 30 to 32 pupils without any additional teaching support, according to the district’s data. The ratio of pupils to teachers is 30 to 1 in kindergarten through second grade. And 32 pupils is the threshold at which the district will bring a teachers aide into the classroom.

The district proposed to change this on January 22. The plan would cut the pupil-teacher ratio to just 28 to 1. However, the district did not propose to reduce the 32-pupil cap.

Reason for Optimism

But U46 parents pointed out that even if the district reduces its pupil-teacher ratio to an average of 28 to 1, individual class sizes still could hit 32 children or more.

Porter said she believes lowering the ratio could be constructive if the district indeed could budget it.

“If we can afford to do it then it might possibly work,” said Porter, whose fourth-grade child at Nature Trail is in a classroom of 29. “Right now schools are battling for resources and are ultimately making sacrifices, and the district cannot just pick only certain schools they think need it the most.

“If they’re [U46] willing to make it a priority, they can make a difference” in the classrooms, Porter continued. “But right now it seems like the tax dollars are not going toward the teacher or the classroom, it’s going toward the” administration.

In any case, one U46 parent says the money should follow the children into the classroom.

“I feel like I’m in a really bad nightmare and I’m just hoping I wake up soon and U46 puts the money where it’s needed” on students and teachers, Comstock said.

Erin Calandriello ([email protected]) is a staff writer at The Courier News in Elgin, Illinois, which ran an earlier version of this article on January 26. Reprinted with permission.